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EDUCATING THE NATION: III. SOCIAL MOBILITY*

Abstract
ABSTRACT

This address asks how much has education contributed to social mobility in post-war Britain and considers other factors that may have contributed as much or more: labour-market opportunities, trends in income inequality, gender differences and ‘compositional effects’ deriving from the shape of the occupational hierarchy. Even where these other factors proved much more powerful – especially labour-market opportunities and compositional effects – democratic discourse both among politicians and among the electorate remained fixated on educational opportunities and outcomes, especially after the decline of the Croslandite critique of ‘meritocracy’. That fixation has if anything been reinforced by the apparent end to a ‘golden age’ of absolute upward mobility for large sections of the population, not necessarily because education is an effective antidote but because the alternative political solutions are so unpalatable both to politicians and to voters.

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I hope it will be clear that I could not have written this paper without drawing deeply on the work not only of historians, but also of sociologists and economists. For helping me tackle the social-science literature, I have to thank Alice Sullivan and especially Anna Vignoles, who needless to say bear no responsibility for my very partial understanding. I owe a continuing debt to Jon Lawrence, not least for a co-taught M.Phil. course on class and social mobility that has brought me more or less up-to-speed on the historical literature, and to Deborah Cohen, who gave this paper, as she did its predecessors, the benefit of her scrupulous and generous eye.

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1 ‘Educating the Nation: I. Schools’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, sixth series, 24 (2014), 5–28; ‘Educating the Nation: II. Universities’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, sixth series, 25 (2015), 1–26.

2 A good summation of how the study of social mobility developed up to the Nuffield School is provided by a key text of that school, Goldthorpe John H. (with Catriona Llewellyn and Clive Payne), Social Mobility and Class Structure in Modern Britain (Oxford, 1980), esp. 1729 .

3 Social Mobility in Britain, ed. D. V. Glass (1954); Halsey A. H., Heath A. F. and Ridge J. M., Origins and Destinations: Family, Class, and Education in Modern Britain (Oxford, 1980).

4 On the ‘entry of the economists’, as seen by the Nuffield School, see Goldthorpe John H., ‘Understanding – and Misunderstanding – Social Mobility in Britain: The Entry of the Economists, the Confusion of Politicians and the Limits of Educational Policy’, Journal of Social Policy, 42 (2013), 431–50.

5 There is a vigorous debate principally among economists about ‘hollowing out’ or ‘job polarisation’ that might produce the hourglass shape; sociologists often still focus on the smallness of the elite and the diversity of the classes beneath them that models a diamond shape.

6 D. V. Glass, ‘Introduction’, in Social Mobility, ed. Glass, 20–1; Jonsson Jon O., Mills Colin and Müller Walter, ‘A Half Century of Increasing Educational Openness? Social Class, Gender and Educational Attainment in Sweden, Germany and Britain’, in Can Education Be Equalized? The Swedish Case in Comparative Perspective, ed. Erikson Robert and Jonsson Jan O. (Boulder, CO, 1996), 183206 .

7 Heath Anthony and Payne Clive, ‘Social Mobility’, in Twentieth-Century British Social Trends, ed. Halsey A. H. and Webb Josephine (Basingstoke, 2000), 260–1.

8 Lindsay Paterson and Cristina Iannelli, ‘Patterns of Absolute and Relative Social Mobility: A Comparative Study of England, Wales and Scotland’, Sociological Research Online (2007), www.socresonline.org.uk/12/6/15.html, Table 6.

9 Goldthorpe, with Llewellyn and Payne, Social Mobility, 52; Halsey, Heath and Ridge, Origins and Destinations, 63.

10 Halsey, Heath and Ridge, Origins and Destinations, 51, 63–4; Floud Jean and Halsey A. H., ‘English Secondary Schools and the Supply of Labour’ (1956), in Education, Economy, and Society, ed. Halsey A. H., Floud Jean and Anderson C. Arnold (New York, 1961), 85–7; Halsey A. H., Change in British Society, 4th edn (Oxford, 1995), 157–8.

11 Paterson and Iannelli, ‘Patterns of Absolute and Relative Mobility’, Table 8. Over half of all university students in this period came from salariat families: Halsey, Heath and Ridge, Origins and Destinations, 183.

12 Devine Fiona and Li Yaojun, ‘The Changing Relationship between Origins, Education and Destinations in the 1990s and 2000s’, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 34 (2013), 768–9, referring to the Nuffield School findings for these earlier cohorts.

13 The term appears sporadically in expert testimony to parliamentary committees in the 1950s but the first time it was ever uttered in parliament was in Lord Samuel's maiden speech in the Lords in 1963, where he recognised ‘This country is now a Welfare State and the gap between the classes is narrowing; there is social mobility upwards.’ Hansard (Lords), fifth series, 252 (1962–3), 24 July 1963. The next reference only came in 1967, employed by Edwin Brooks, a former geography lecturer. It appears occasionally in newspapers throughout the 1950s and 1960s but only with any frequency from the 1990s, for which see below, p. 14.

14 Jackson Ben, Equality and the British Left: A Study in Progressive Political Thought, 1900–64 (Manchester, 2007), 30–2.

15 See, for example, Ellen Wilkinson in Hansard, fifth series, 424 (1945–6), 1813 [1 July 1945]; and see Dyhouse Carol, ‘Family Patterns of Social Mobility through Higher Education in England in the 1930s’, Journal of Social History, 34 (2000–1), 817–41, on the earlier history of ‘wasted talent’.

16 See the excellent discussion of revisionist thinking on education policy in Jackson, Equality and the British Left, 163–76, 196–202; and see Nicholas Ellison, Egalitarian Thought and Labour Politics: Retreating Visions (1994), 92–5, 143–5, on the revisionists’ need to compromise with more conventional meritocratic views in their own party.

17 In Young's satire, ‘meritocracy’ had been supported both by Conservatives and by ‘practical socialists’, though opposed by egalitarian socialists, a shrewd observation: Young Michael, The Rise of the Meritocracy 1870–2033: An Essay on Education and Equality (1958; 2nd edn, Harmondsworth, 1961), 3648 .

18 Glass, ‘Introduction’, 25–6.

19 This seems to have been encouraged by some of the sociologists: Olive Banks, Parity and Prestige in English Secondary Education: A Study in Educational Sociology (1955), 239–48; David V. Glass, ‘Education and Social Change in Modern England’ (1959), in Education, Economy, and Society, ed. Halsey, Floud and Anderson, 403–5; Floud and Halsey, ‘English Secondary Schools and the Supply of Labour’, 80–92.

20 Jackson, Equality and the British Left, 198–200.

21 For an unusually explicit understanding of the prevailing relationship between education and the labour market, see C. Arnold Anderson, ‘A Skeptical Note on Education and Mobility’ (1961), in Education, Economy, and Society, ed. Halsey, Floud and Anderson, 164–79.

22 Sanderson Michael, ‘Education and the Labour Market’, in Work and Pay in Twentieth-Century Britain, ed. Crafts Nicholas, Gazeley Ian and Newell Andrew (Oxford, 2007), 273–5.

23 Mandler, ‘Educating the Nation: I. Schools’, 13–14 n. 23; see also Goldthorpe, with Llewellyn and Payne, Social Mobility, 231–2.

24 Cebulla Andreas and Tomaszewski Wojtek, ‘The Demise of Certainty: Shifts in Aspirations and Achievement at the Turn of the Century’, International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, 18 (2013), 147 .

25 Tampubolon Gindo and Savage Mike, ‘Intergenerational and Intragenerational Social Mobility in Britain’, in Social Stratification: Trends and Processes, ed. Lambert Paul et al. (Farnham, 2012), 120–3.

26 Makepeace Gerry, Dolton Peter, Woods Laura, Joshi Heather and Galinda-Rueda Fernando, ‘From School to the Labour Market’, in Changing Britain, Changing Lives: Three Generations at the Turn of the Century, ed. Ferri Elsa, Bynner John and Wadsworth Michael (2003), 42–3.

27 Paterson and Iannelli, ‘Patterns of Absolute and Relative Mobility’, Table 6.

28 Two major studies came to this same conclusion: Boliver Vikki and Swift Adam, ‘Do Comprehensive Schools Reduce Social Mobility?’, British Journal of Sociology, 62 (2011), 89110 (quote at 100), and Glaesser Judith and Cooper Barry, ‘Educational Achievement in Selective and Comprehensive Local Education Authorities: A Configurational Analysis’, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 33 (2012), 223–44. They both also found that high-ability working-class children selected for grammar schools were probably already at higher levels of ability at the point of selection than the high-ability working-class children in comprehensive schools to whom they are being compared, which may account for the apparent edge that grammar schools had in A-Level (but not O-Level) attainment.

29 This tendency, for stronger ED association at higher levels of attainment, has been found for many countries: Breen Richard and Jonsson Jan O., ‘Inequality of Opportunity in Comparative Perspective: Recent Research on Educational Attainment and Social Mobility’, Annual Review of Sociology, 31 (2005), 234 .

30 Goldthorpe, ‘Understanding – and Misunderstanding – Social Mobility’, 444; Bukodi Erzsebet and Goldthorpe John H., ‘Social Class Returns to Higher Education: Chances of Access to the Professional and Managerial Salariat for Men in Three British Birth Cohorts’, Longitudinal and Life Course Studies, 2 (2011), 189–91; Bukodi Erzsebet and Goldthorpe John H., ‘Class Origins, Education and Occupational Attainment in Britain’, European Societies, 13 (2011), 358, 360–1.

31 Heath and Payne, ‘Social Mobility’, 263–4.

32 Sutcliffe-Braithwaite Florence, ‘Neo-Liberalism and Morality in the Making of Thatcherite Social Policy’, Historical Journal, 55 (2012), 497520 .

33 Keith Joseph and Jonathan Sumption, Equality (1979), 14–15, 29–34, 86–97.

34 Mandler, ‘Educating the Nation: II. Universities’, 19–22.

35 The use of the term ‘social mobility’ begins to make a more than sporadic appearance in The Times around 1990, though levels remain far below what they would reach in the 2000s. In the Guardian, more attuned to contemporary sociology, the pace picks up earlier, in the late 1970s.

36 Yaojun Li and Fiona Devine, ‘Is Social Mobility Really Declining? Intergenerational Class Mobility in Britain in the 1990s and the 2000s’, Sociological Research Online (2011), www.socresonline.org.uk/16/3/4.html; cf. the earlier, gloomier, view taken by Geoff Payne and Judy Roberts, ‘Opening and Closing the Gates: Recent Developments in Male Social Mobility in Britain’, Sociological Research Online (2002), www.socresonline.org.uk/6/4/payne.html, which predicted a contraction of the salariat.

37 Li and Devine, ‘Is Social Mobility Really Declining?’; Paterson and Iannelli, ‘Patterns of Absolute and Relative Social Mobility’.

38 Bukodi Erzsebet, Goldthorpe John H., Waller Lorraine and Kuha Jouni, ‘The Mobility Problem in Britain: New Findings from the Analysis of Birth Cohort Data’, British Journal of Sociology, 66 (2015), 104, 111 .

39 Paterson and Iannelli, ‘Patterns of Absolute and Relative Mobility’, Table 6.

40 Devine and Li, ‘Changing Relationship’, 783–4. For a finding that the expansion of higher education has tended generally to increase inequality, see Francesco Vona, ‘Does the Expansion of Higher Education Reduce Educational Inequality? Evidence from 12 European Countries’, OFCE – Centre de recherche en economie de Sciences Po, No. 2011–12 (June 2011). But cf. Goldthorpe, ‘Understanding – and Misunderstanding – Social Mobility’, 441; Goldthorpe John H., ‘The Role of Education in Intergenerational Social Mobility: Problems from Empirical Research in Sociology and Some Theoretical Pointers from Economics’, Rationality and Society, 26 (2014), 265–89; E. Bukodi and J. H. Goldthorpe, ‘Educational Attainment – Relative or Absolute – as a Mediator of Intergenerational Class Mobility in Britain’, Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, in press, 9, which does accept growth in class returns to education at least between the 1958 and 1970 cohorts.

41 Goldthorpe, ‘Understanding – and Misunderstanding – Social Mobility’, 443–5.

42 For an emollient reconciliation of these problems and differences, see Blanden Jo, Gregg Paul and Macmillan Lindsey, ‘Intergenerational Persistence in Income and Social Class: The Effect of Within-Group Inequality’, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, series A, 176 (2013), 541–63.

43 Jo Blanden, Paul Gregg and Stephen Machin, Intergenerational Mobility in Europe and North America: A Report Supported by the Sutton Trust (Centre for Economic Performance, LSE, Apr. 2005). This study relied heavily on contrasts between the 1958 and 1970 cohorts, whose educational experience was by then already some way in the past; but cf. Blanden Jo and Machin Stephen, ‘Educational Inequality and the Expansion of UK Higher Education’, Scottish Journal of Political Economy, 51 (2004), 230–49, which creates semi-cohorts for a more recent period, when inequality in degree attainment was then declining.

44 Jo Blanden and Stephen Machin, Recent Changes in Intergenerational Mobility in Britain, Report for Sutton Trust (Dec. 2007), 18–19. It is striking that the 2009 White Paper ‘New Opportunities: Fair Chances for the Future’, Cm. 7533 (2009), 17–20, is still citing the 2005 report as evidence for declining relative mobility on the basis that ‘the latest data on relative mobility relate to people born in 1970’.

45 Blanden, Gregg and Macmillan, ‘Intergenerational Persistence’, 561–2.

46 Markus Jȁntti et al., ‘American Exceptionalism in a New Light: A Comparison of Intergenerational Earnings Mobility in the Nordic Countries, the United Kingdom and the United States’, IZA Discussion Paper No. 1938 (Jan. 2006), 14–15, 17; Gorard Stephen, ‘A Re-Consideration of Rates of “Social Mobility” in Britain: Or Why Research Impact is Not Always a Good Thing’, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 29 (2008), 321–3; John Jerrim, ‘The Link between Family Background and Later Lifetime Income: How Does the UK Compare to Other Countries?’, Working Paper No. 14–02, Department of Quantitative Social Science, Institute of Education (Feb. 2014), which moderates the claims that Britain's income mobility compares badly with other developed economies.

47 Goldthorpe, ‘Understanding – and Misunderstanding – Social Mobility’, 436–7; Payne Geoff, ‘A New Social Mobility? The Political Redefinition of a Sociological Problem’, Contemporary Social Science, 7 (2012), 56–7, 67–9; Brown Phillip, ‘Education, Opportunity and the Prospects for Social Mobility’, British Journal of the Sociology of Education, 34 (2013), 680–2; but Li and Devine, ‘Is Social Mobility Really Declining?’, are more realistic about the political possibilities. For an unusual sociological critique from the right, see Peter Saunders, Social Mobility Delusions (2012).

48 ‘Predistribution’ was introduced into public debate in 2012, when Ed Miliband (who got it from the American political scientist Jacob Hacker) took it up, but it refers to a suite of policies that New Labour had already gone a long way towards adopting when in office.

49 References to ‘social mobility’ in The Times had been edging up from single figures per annum in the late 1980s to dozens in the early 2000s, and then mushroomed to 156 in 2005, 313 in 2007 and 504 in 2010. My calculations from Lexis/Nexis. Payne, ‘A New Social Mobility?’, 58, observes a similar chronology but for some reason at much lower levels; and see also Geoff Payne, ‘Labouring under a Misapprehension: Politicians’ Perceptions and the Realities of Structural Social Mobility in Britain, 1995–2010’, in Social Stratification, ed. Lambert et al., 224–42.

50 Boliver and Swift, ‘Do Comprehensive Schools Reduce Social Mobility?’, 90–1; cf. Gorard, ‘Re-consideration of Rates’, 318.

51 A rare and brief exception was the rhetoric of the Liberal Democrats in the Coalition Government, around 2011, when ‘relative mobility’ was mentioned specifically, although even they had a tendency to define it as ‘an equal chance of getting the job they want or reaching a higher income bracket’: cf. Claire Crawford, Paul Johnson, Steve Machin and Anna Vignoles, ‘Social Mobility: A Literature Review’, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Mar. 2011, 6; Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers: A Strategy for Social Mobility (Apr. 2011), 15; Vince Cable, ‘Supporting Social Mobility and Lifelong Learning’, 17 Oct. 2012, www.gov.uk/government/speeches/supporting-social-mobility-and-lifelong-learning, accessed 4 July 2016.

52 Heath Anthony, Sullivan Alice, Boliver Vikki and Zimdars Anna, ‘Education under New Labour, 1997–2010’, Oxford Review of Economic Policy, 29 (2013), 227–47, quotation at 242; see also Geoff Whitty and Jake Anders, ‘(How) Did New Labour Narrow the Achievement and Participation Gap?’, LLAKES Research Paper 46, Institute of Education, Centre for Learning and Life Chances in Knowledge Economies and Societies (2014).

53 Payne, ‘Labouring Under a Misapprehension’, 237–9. Cf. Jȁntti et al., ‘American Exceptionalism in a New Light’, 28, which recommends just such a focus on ‘interventions designed to increase the mobility of the very poorest’.

54 Breen Richard and Goldthorpe John H., ‘Explaining Educational Differentials: Towards a Formal Rational Action Theory’, Rationality and Society, 9 (1997), 294–6; Breen and Jonsson, ‘Inequality of Opportunity’, 226–7, 234; Breen Richard, Liujkx Ruud, Müller Walter and Pollak Reinhard, ‘Non-Persistent Inequality in Educational Attainment: Evidence from Eight European Countries’, American Journal of Sociology, 114 (2008–9), esp. 1478–80; Sandra E. Black and Paul J. Devereux, ‘Recent Developments in Intergenerational Mobility’, IZA Discussion Paper 4866 (Apr. 2010), 16, 19, 24, 30–1; Blanden Jo, ‘Cross-Country Rankings in Intergenerational Mobility: A Comparison of Approaches from Economics and Sociology’, Journal of Economic Surveys, 27 (2013), 61–2; Goldthorpe, ‘Understanding – and Misunderstanding – Social Mobility’, 445.

55 Jȁntti et al., ‘American Exceptionalism in a New Light’, 19; Jerrim, ‘Link between Family Background’, 21–2.

56 A conclusion shared by Goldthorpe, ‘Understanding – and Misunderstanding – Social Mobility’, 446–7.

* I hope it will be clear that I could not have written this paper without drawing deeply on the work not only of historians, but also of sociologists and economists. For helping me tackle the social-science literature, I have to thank Alice Sullivan and especially Anna Vignoles, who needless to say bear no responsibility for my very partial understanding. I owe a continuing debt to Jon Lawrence, not least for a co-taught M.Phil. course on class and social mobility that has brought me more or less up-to-speed on the historical literature, and to Deborah Cohen, who gave this paper, as she did its predecessors, the benefit of her scrupulous and generous eye.

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